Case closed: Blue Jays land closer Santos

Case closed: Blue Jays land closer Santos

DALLAS -- The Blue Jays' search for a new closer came to an end on Tuesday afternoon, when the club acquired right-hander Sergio Santos from the White Sox in exchange for pitching prospect Nestor Molina.

Santos went 4-5 with a 3.55 ERA and 30 saves in 36 opportunities during his first season as Chicago's closer in 2011.

Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos had made acquiring a closer one of the top priorities this offseason after his team finished tied for the American League lead in blown saves, with 25 in 2011. The decision to part ways with Molina wasn't easy but one that Anthopoulos ultimately felt he had to make.

"It took some time to really wrap our heads around it," Anthopoulos told a scrum of reporters on Day 2 of the Winter Meetings in Dallas. "There were a lot of heated debates in the room about it, but ultimately, I just felt with everything that we have going on, this makes sense for us.

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"He's definitely going to close for us. He saved 30 games last year, and we think he's going to get better. He's got the ninth inning."

The deal came together late Monday night at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas. Anthopoulos and assistant general manager Tony LaCava met in Chicago GM Kenny Williams' suite to explore possible trade scenarios.

Anthopoulos once again inquired about Santos -- a player Toronto had long coveted. Santos became even more valuable in the Blue Jays' eyes after the season when he signed a long-term extension in early October.

Santos is scheduled to earn just $7.5 million over the next three seasons, with an additional three option years valued at a total of $22.75 million. Each of those option years can be bought out for $750,000, while Santos could potentially earn a total of $30.25 million over six seasons.

It's the type of flexible contract that Anthopoulos enjoys dealing with, and it played a factor in the trade becoming official.

"It's hard," Anthopoulos said. "You can get guys to close games, but to find someone who has a chance to be elite and under contract for that period of time [is rare]. At the end of the day, we had to pay a steep price, and it was not easy to do.

"We certainly had a split camp internally, because we think very highly of Molina, but where our team is right now, where our payroll is right now, all of those things made sense for us."

Molina became one of the Blue Jays' top prospects this past season with a breakout campaign for both Class A Dunedin and Double-A New Hampshire. He throws his fastball approximately 89-92 mph and complements it with a slider and changeup.

The best pitch he possesses, though, is a well-above-average splitter that creates a lot of deception for the hitter. There has been some debate about whether Molina projects more as a starting pitcher or a reliever in the long term, but Anthopoulos thinks he'll eventually find a spot on Chicago's rotation.

"We saw him as a starter -- we thought he could be a mid-rotation starter," Anthopoulos said of Molina, who went a combined 12-3 with a 2.21 ERA in 130 1/3 innings in the Minor Leagues this season. "But there's no question, with his command, he has an out-pitch split that we think can [make him] a very effective reliever as well.

"That being said, there's obviously an element of risk, because he hasn't done it yet. We've been wrong on prospects before, but I think that's where the give and take comes in. He's got ceiling, he's got upside, but there are no guarantees."

The deal could turn out to be a gamble for both teams. Chicago has traded away a potential dominant reliever that is currently signed to an extremely team-friendly contract, while the Blue Jays surrendered one of the rising arms from their Minor League system.

The winner and loser of this deal might not be known for years to come, but there's little doubt it should give Toronto an immediate upgrade in the bullpen.

Right-hander Frank Francisco led the Blue Jays with 17 saves in 2011. He has been offered salary arbitration by the club, but Anthopoulos expects the veteran to decline and sign with another team.

That would have created a glaring hole at the back end of Toronto's bullpen. Now manager John Farrell knows exactly what to expect heading into Spring Training, and it's something he thinks will help the rest of his bullpen settle into place.

"Extremely happy," Farrell said of his reaction. "You know, we were able to get a guy Alex outlined very clearly, that for potentially the next six years, he's a Toronto Blue Jay, and to get someone that's got such strikeout ability for that role that late in the game, an area that we came into this Winter Meetings as a focal point to address, we were able to do that.

"We gave up a good pitcher, a guy that we really believed in, even though he's a guy that was just pitching in Double-A, but gave up a very good pitcher to get a quality closer."

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.